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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Tim Sweeney of Epic Games

An interview with Tim Sweeney of Epic Games.

Tim Sweeney is the programming genius behind Epic Games' Unreal, a hit game in its own right as well as an engine which has been licensed to over a dozen other companies to be used in everything from role playing games and first person shooters to a virtual tour of Notre Dame cathedral.

Unreal has now spawned a multiplayer focused follow-up, Unreal Tournament, which looks set to take the online world by storm and should give id Software's Quake 3 Arena a run for its money.

With Unreal Tournament nearing release, we talked to Tim about Epic, their new game, and the future of the first person shooter.

Now that's what I call muzzle flash!

More Human Than Human

Epic have been working on Unreal Tournament since the original Unreal was released last spring.

"When Unreal shipped, the 'botmatch' (deathmatch play against bots) was becoming really popular, and Steve Polge [who coded the bot AI] felt he had only scratched the surface of what was possible with bots."

"He wanted to expand on that, making the bots feel 'human', and wanted to make them work well in complex team-play situations like Capture the Flag, where no other AI had succeeded."

This idea evolved into Unreal Tournament. Instead of a traditional story driven single player game, Unreal Tournament is based around multiplayer action.

You can play against humans over the internet, against AI bots on your own computer, or even a mixture of both. But whichever you choose, the basic gameplay is the same.

There was another reason behind Unreal Tournament though, as Tim explains...

"After Unreal came out we realized the game's multiplayer wasn't up to gamers' expectations, because of problems in the network code and general complaints over weapon strengths."

"Since we're all avid deathmatchers, we really wanted to get it right. So a multiplayer focused sequel seemed like the thing to do."

Ooh. That's gotta hurt.

The Other Game

Unfortunately, before Epic could announce Unreal Tournament, id Software's John Carmack dropped a bomb shell on the gaming community.

In a .plan last June he revealed that id had changed their minds about developing Quake 3, and would instead be working on a multiplayer game with bots for single player.

"That was a surprise to us", Tim admitted. "We'd started on Unreal Tournament as a 'deathmatch focused' game a couple of months before id announced their plans."

The timing was terrible. Many gamers wrote off Unreal Tournament as a "me too" title when it was released, and the game was even described as "a bad joke" by one member of Epic.

"id Software owned deathmatch gaming at the time, so we were concerned about overlap between the two games", Tim told us. "But all along we've had Steve's bots and a very unique look and feel to differentiate UT. So we were never discouraged by id's plans."

And their faith has paid off...

"Unreal 1 was about making a gigantic technological and artistic leap, and just hitting the side of the barn in terms of the kind of game we wanted to produce. It was cool, but rough and unpolished in many ways."

"Unreal Tournament has been just the opposite. While we've added some cool technology features, 90% of the effort has been on fine-tuning and polishing the game."

Greased lighting!

Fully Compensated

The result has impressed even the hardcore gamers, many of whom have been playing the same game (id's QuakeWorld) for more than three years now.

"It's been great seeing the response to Unreal Tournament because gamers have taken a fresh look at our stuff, and most people like what they see."

"With Unreal 1, we (deservedly) had a cloud hanging over our heads due to our early problems with network play and high system requirements, and the cynics expected that UT and all future Epic games would have those same problems."

"But, it turns out we learned from our mistakes and fully compensated for them on Unreal Tournament, and balanced the game really nicely."

Unlike the original Unreal, Unreal Tournament not only looks beautiful, it also plays well and works perfectly over the internet. If there's any justice in the world, Epic have a huge hit on their hands.

The demo has already been released and, according to Tim, Epic are "just putting on the final touches in preparation for release" of the full version.

So, with the game nearing completion, what does Tim think will blow players away?

"I couldn't point to any one thing with UT that stands out as its major feature. We have really solid network play; great bot play; a tremendous variety of levels (over 50 in total); great game types like deathmatch, capture the flag, assault, and dominaton; a very complete user interface with built-in server finding, chat, and news."

"Overall, it's really solid and well-rounded, rather than excelling in one area at the expense of others."

Standing on the edge of forever

The Future

And once Unreal Tournament is completed, what next?

"After Unreal Tournament, I'm going to take a day off!" Tim joked. "And then start working on the next engine."

Epic aren't entirely sure what to do with this new engine yet though.

"Massive multiplayer is the way of the future", according to Tim. "But there's no telling what steps we'll take on the way there."

So does that mean we'll be seeing an Unreal Online?

"Something like that will happen eventually," Tim told us. "Whether it will be Unreal or something else is still an open question."

"Another single player focused game is still a major possibility though. We're still figuring that out". But one thing is certain. "We're not going to be making any hunting games!"

Damn, and there I was hoping for "Unreal : Nali Cow Hunter"...